Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rethinking Scientific Progress

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rethinking Scientific Progress

Article excerpt

Rethinking scientific progress

AS our turbulent century draws to its close, marking a thousand years of spectacular growth in knowledge, a new sensitivity about the state of mankind can be discerned. This shift in our cultural "temperature" resuts, in part, from a realization that technological change--while greatly improving nutrition and health, for instance--can ham the physical nature of our world.

As part of its vocations in the fields of information and culture, Unesco organizes, every few years, meetings of concentrated reflection on societal issues affected by progress in science and technology. In 1986, some twenty-five specialists met in Venice to contemplate "Science and the Boundaries of Knowledge". (1) Another two dozen experts from all over the world met late last year in Vancouver, Canada, to ponder the theme "Science and Culture for the 21st Century: Agenda for Survival". The choice of the word "survival" may be intimidating, but an eminent ecologist from Quebec present in Vancouver, Pierre Dansereau, admitted that "it is scientists who are part of the problem".

When our century began, scientific research was still a disparate effort on the part of dedicated individuals and practical inventors--not working in teams, yet motivated by an intense desire to learn all about nature and the universe beyond.

Today, stressed Moroccan educator Mahdi Elmandjra at Vancouver, our "learning processes and mental structures" are relatively unchanged, but there is a need for "greater foresignt and much more balanced cultural communication".

Italian historian and philosopher Nicola Dallaporta interpreted inequalities between North and South as "breaks or violations of the symmetries" that long existed among the world's civilizations. These disruptions, she claimed, "create the practically unlimited capacity of the world to express in the most delicately shaded ways" mankind's countless thoughts and ideas.

Supporting this line of reasoning, Yujiro Nakamura of Meiji University in Tokyo noted what he called "cultural negatively". He explained: "Contact between different peoples and nations has not bought mutual respect, but often violent opposition.... A culture should not impose its rhythm on other cultures."

But assymetry and negative reactions can be corrected by what we learn from nature, according to Daniel A. Akyeampong, a mathematical physicist from Ghana. "At each stage in the development of science, the new concepts arising have influenced man in his understanding and appreciation of this culture." Reacalling the rigour of investigation in the natural science, he asked, "Can nature's inherent symmetry find pride of place in our social and cultural values?"

Such consciousness has peervaded the work undertaken by the United Nations and its specialzied agencies.

Academician Josef Riman, a geneticist from Czechoslovakia, noted that non-governmental organizations also play a role in reconciling scientific progress with human needs, citing the example of the newly developed Global Change programme of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).

ICSU, representing about a million scientists throughout the world, is closely associated with Unesco. Its Global Change scheme (known as the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) seeks to achieve during the coming decade better understanding of physical and chemical relations in our planet's subsystems. …

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